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Battle of the Books

The Big Kahuna Match: Between Boxers & Saints, P.S. Be Eleven, and Eleanor & Park

BoB_2014_RND4_FINAL

JUDGE – JENNIFER HOLM Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang FirstSecond/Macmillan Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell Saint Martin’s Press  P.S. Be Eleven by Rita Williams-Garcia Amistad/HarperCollins I’m one of five kids. Children from big families have a habit of asking their mother: “Who do you love most?” Mothers generally hem and haw and say […]

The Big Kahuna Match: Between The Fault in Our Stars, No Crystal Stair, and Code Name Verity

 BigKahuna_round
Code Name Verity
by Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion/Disney
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
Dutton/Penguin
No Crystal Stair
by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
Carolrhoda Books/Lerner

Judged by
Frank Cottrell Boyce


I agreed to be the Big Kahuna because I believe in saying yes to any invitation that doesn’t involve crime, betrayal or heights. I thought it would be good to be forced to read books I wouldn’t normally read. I completely forgot – as I worked my way through the entire list – that it would involve me JUDGING one of those books.  My children could have told you that when it comes to judgement I don’t have any.  Or mine is wired up differently from everyone else’s. You can guarantee that if I think a book or film is the worst thing ever,  history will reveal that it to be s a timeless classic. If I love something to distraction,  you will shortly find it in the remaindered section.  I hope this fact is of some comfort to the losers here today and to the winner, all I can say is,  I love you – which is probably not a good thing.

G K Chesteron said of St. Francis “his life was a riot of rash promises which somehow turned out alright.”  Here’s hoping that my rash promise to judge this competition turns out alright.

Other Big Kahunas have complained that it’s near impossible to judge between finalists because they’re so diverse it’s “like judging between apples and whipped cream”.  Well not this year. All three finalists have so much in common that they’re almost different versions of the same book.  They’re all about very serious subjects (cancer, torture, civil rights) but the authors have played games with the form and shape of the book.

All three books are all brilliant.

They’ve won their heats.

They’re on the blocks.

The stadium is full and hushed.

The gun is raised.

The only way one of them is going to win is if the other two put a foot wrong.

It’s going to be a photo finish.

And they’re off ….

Code Name Verity, I’m predisposed to love you.  I have a thing about early aviators.  After all two of them – Roald Dahl and Antoine de St. Exupery – became great children’s writers .  One of the great things that fiction can do is show you something new.  The story of the Air Transport Auxiliary – the women pilots of World War Two – is relatively unknown,  so it’s a tale worth telling.  There is some absolutely wonderful writing in this book.  For instance there’s a passage where one of the heroines – Maddie – flies a lap of the North of England, from Manchester out to Holy Island and back across the Lake District, from sea to shining sea. It’s one of the best couple of pages I’ve read in years. It gives you a strangely emotional sense of your country as a physical object on the surface of a planet.  There’s a section where Maddie has to talk an inexperienced pilot through his landing which was both thrilling and convincing (you normally have to chose between those two qualities).   The book bulges with charming, convincing details.  I’ll remember for ever the Resistance using a pair of oxen to try to shift a plane.

Does this book put a foot wrong?  It’s hard to go into detail here without spoiling the plot but I had trouble with the narrators. The first half of the book has an unreliable narrator whose unreliability pays off beautifully in the second half.  But an important part of the book is that she has been tortured by the Gestapo. Because she is playing a game with the reader, we never feel that power of that.  For me this gave me the feeling that while the book took aviation and friendship seriously, it was muted and a bit flip about the damage that torture does.  I’ve interviewed some men who were tortured in World War Two.  That’s a long time ago but they still find it difficult to talk about.

Although all the aviation material feels authentic,  there are a lot of anachronisms. At one point Maddie says she had a surreal evening.  She’s using surreal in the modern sense of “slightly unexpected”. I feel that at this point – just a few years after the first surrealist exhibition in Britain,  the clocks on the wall would have to melt and the phone mutate into a lobster before an evening could be considered surreal.  More importantly, there’s something anachronistic about the way the narrators write.  It struck me as just too chatty.  Take this for instance … “If I’m caught writing this I will be in trouble whoever catches me – German, French, British, even American.”  Too right.  By keeping a diary she’d be putting not just herself but everyone associated with her at risk of the concentration camp.  Why does she do it?  Because “I have absolutely nothing else to do and I have the most marvellous pen in the world – an Eterpen, it has a tiny ball bearing in the nib and is full of quick-drying printer’s ink.”  A marvellous pen seems a very small reason to risk the lives of others.   And to whom is that description of the pen addressed?  The speaker is already holding the pen. Why describe it?  It feels a bit like reading a blog. It doesn’t feel like the sentence of someone for whom paper and time are precious.

Am I nitpicking here? Yes  indeed. This race is so tight that the nits are going to have the deciding vote (by the way there’s a very good passage about nits).

One reason I said yes to the Big Kahuna hat was that it would make me read books I would never otherwise read.  Believe me only moral and legal obligations would ever have got me to read The Fault in Our Stars.  I have no patience with the Kids with Cancer genre.  It’s cheating.

Part of the inspiration for my own first book was that a friend of mine was dying of cancer. She made ruthless and hilarious use of what John Green calls “the cancer perk”  –  letting people know she had the Emperor of All Maladies in order to gain preferential treatment. I took her to some film awards just a few weeks before she died and she used the cancer perk to get herself introduced to George Clooney.  Writing about Kids with Cancer is using the Cancer Perk without having the inconvenience of suffering.

On top of that my Mother has cancer and I happen to be typing this report sitting on a chair next to her bed in the intensive recovery ward.

I was as predisposed to despise this book as I was to love Code Name Verity.

One of the great functions of art is to challenge and overturn our expectations.  John Green overturned my expectations. I loved this book.

The things I hate most about kid-with-cancer books is that the characters are so prepared for Death.  Death grooms them.  They can plan for his approach,  get themselves ready for it.  The truth about death is that – even when we are old – it’s always a bast surprise. No one really believes in their own mortality.

Thanks to some brilliant plotting, the death in this book is a nasty surprise.

The characters are so bewitching and convincing that they far outshine the headlight glare of their oncoming doom.  This is partly because Green has his characters talk about the cancer kid cliché self-consciously in their support group at the Literal Heart of Jesus. But it’s mostly because they’re just so charming and attractive.  There’s a face-off between Hazel and her mother about the semiotics of scrambled eggs that would be worthy of Chekov.  When Hazel says “a scrambled egg-inclusive meal is breakfast even if it occurs at dinner time”,  you can feel the teenager trying to define her World.  When her mother replies, “You need to pick your battles,  Hazel” – well, that’s the teenager I can remember being,  and that’s the parent I’d like to be.

When Hazel overhears her Mother saying, “I won’t be a mom anymore”, it went right through me.

Green writes about cancer and the culture of cancer brilliantly.  But what I really loved about the book was its presentation of teenagers as thoughtful, literate, emotionally serious, swaggering but also uncertain and vulnerable.  It’s tender and true and it’s very very rare.

Is anything wrong with this book? I can only think of stupid illegitimate observations – such as it’s already been a Number One bestseller, it’s won loads of prizes, what’s the point in giving it another prize.  That’s a bit like telling Usain Bolt that he’s already won enough medals and that he should give the Olympic gold to someone else.

There’s a line in The Fault in Our Stars –  “Writing does not resurrect, it buries”.   No Crystal Stair proves that it’s not actually true. No Crystal Stair brings Lewis Michaux – the stubborn, contradictory spirit who ran the African National Memorial Bookstore in Harlem in the face of all kinds of economic and political problems – vividly back to life.  I feel like I’ve met him.  Michaux is my new hero.  History ran like a river down the main aisle of his shop.  Giant figures – Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King – stroll through the pages of this book but Lewis is the character that stays with you.  He was a great phrase maker – calling the shop The House of Common Sense.  There’s a terrific story here where his friend Snooze walks in and greets him with the Black Power clenched fist.  Lewis tells him to open his hand,  then puts a book in it saying “That is power. Knowledge is power, you need it every hour.”

Like all real heroes, he’s complicated and sometimes exasperating.  The book captures all of his contradictions because instead of a narrative, it’s a series of anecdotes, news clippings and sketches all from different points of view.  This is how we get to know the real people in our lives – from the opinions and memories of others.  Somehow Vaunda Michaux Nelson manages to keep all those plates spinning while keeping the human stories – his love story, his relationship with his brothers – moving.

All three books do have clever, fresh storytelling but the daring of No Crystal Stair seems to  come not from a brilliant brain but from a loving heart.  Nelson is Lewis Michaux’s great niece and the book has all the restless curiosity of a child trying to conjure up the ghost of a lost family member.

So here’s that moment when I fulfil my rash promise and pronounce judgement.

Because it’s so fresh and so bold and because those qualities were prompted by such tenderness … I’m giving it to No Crystal Stair.

— Frank Cottrell Boyce


Surprisingly, we have an all YA finale—How much did it suck that LIAR & SPY and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS faced off in the first round?—but then CODE NAME VERITY and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS got six starred reviews for a reason: not only are they manifestly excellent, but it’s fairly easy to agree that they are among the very best books of the year. NO CRYSTAL STAIR is less conventional, and didn’t have the large fan base that either of those books, but is worthy of winning this whole thing. And so it has!

It’s the book that I would have chosen myself, followed closely by CODE NAME VERITY. Congratulations to Vaunda Micheaux Nelson for her wonderful book. Congratulations to all of our contenders, actually.

And a big thanks to our celebrity judges—and to you, our readers, for following along.

— Commentator Jonathan Hunt

To judge this, I will do something like what Jonathan Stroud did in his excellent decision last year, and what some judges have done this year: find bases of comparison.

The Fault in Our Stars says that the love is all that counts, even in the face of death. Even after the grief, Hazel and Augustus’s story can only be called magical. And that’s all that matters, right? Perhaps – remember Van Houten. Very thought-provoking, indeed. But you don’t think about that while you’re reading it; Green crafts a book that’s almost surreal.

No Crystal Stair gives us an extremely complex idea: that knowledge leads to love and acceptance. Micheaux Nelson beautifully tells a story of African-American achievement through literature, from the truthful voices of Lewis Michaux and Lightfoot. And that quest for a better place in society is, indeed, no crystal stair.

Code Name Verity demonstrates the necessity of love. Maddie and Julie (Verity), two wonderful English (excuse me, Julie is Scottish) characters, are caught in war…The reader finds out in lyrical prose with grim humor that Julie, the Nazi prisoner, was herself the interrogator in England; how she relies on the memory of her friend Maddie to survive her imprisonment; how Maddie feverishly searches for Julie. Is the book saying, like The Fault in Our Stars, that love is all that matters? Maybe, but it says more. Love is some sort of eternal truth and goal, needed even by Nazi interrogators. And, similar No Crystal Stair, love is the end of Verity’s hidden schemes and plans – and the motive.

From these three wonderful books, we find very important, complex, and similar themes. They just convey them differently. In The Fault in Our Stars, although the emotional impact one gets from it is still huge, and the writing is gorgeous, the themes are a little too transparent, manipulative, and obvious. No Crystal Stair, while greatly important, is not quite as passionate and relatable as the other two books. So, for me, Code Name Verity it is! The story, the writing, and the message were all superb and well-integrated. The emotional impact was tremendous. The book deserves to win the Battle of the Kids’ Books on all counts.

— Kid Commentator RGN

 


Please join us in congratulating
No Crystal Stair by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson
for WINNING the 2013 Battle of the Kids’ Books.

 The_Winner2

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